Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I'm No Feminist, I Just Think Women Should Have Equal Rights

Over at Unfogged, Heebie put up a post that I thought I wanted to talk about, except I misread it entirely.

The post, which actually concerns two separate Crooked Timber posts, deals with why racism has become the big taboo of American public life, in that to say something racist will damage a public figure badly.

As Belle Waring argues in her Crooked Timber post this is a bit less true in Southern (semi)-public life, which I have also found to be the case.  Certainly the racist shit I heard growing up and which I continue to hear (to a lesser extent) to this day ranges from mildly to wildly appalling.

But!  Not what I want to talk about here.

John Holbo said this: "Why isn't 'the civil rights struggle' kind of like 'feminism': a thing you are allowed to hate on publicly?"

Which during my first hasty read I understood as something this: "Why hasn't feminism ever gotten the kind of power and respect which we now accord the civil rights struggle?  Why aren't people as afraid to be accused of being anti-feminist as they are afraid of being accused of racism?"

Which -- you know -- that's an interesting and troubling question.

Nor does a clear or easy answer presents itself.

Over in the comments on Unfogged, I noted that in some respects perhaps it's easier to convince people of the evil  of racism than it is to convince them of the evils of sexism, given that with racism you can point to slavery and lynchings, to fire-hoses being turned on kids, to unequal treatment in public life (i.e. segregation in the schools, lunch counters, separate entrances and seating in theaters and buses; so on).

Whereas with sexism, while men rape women and beat their wives, while unequal pay continues, and while  there is still some lack of access to some areas of higher education and positions of power, well, it is possible to explain these away (if you're determined to do so) as the results of women's choices, or as the results of bad choices by individuals.

That is, unlike slavery, which was the system working as it was constructed to work, wife-beating and rape are bad men doing bad things.  (And probably slutty women getting what they deserve for drinking too much and going to parties with vaginas or whatever.) Good men acting right don't do those things.  Good women acting right don't have those things happen to them.  

Or, well, very rarely.  Not often enough that we need to change the system in response.

And the same for all the other issues feminism frets its pretty head over.

That is, some women do want to be engineers, of course, and some women want to be Senators, or CEOs, or lawyers, but most women (claim people opposed to feminism) want to let the men do all that work, while they take care of babies and gardens and volunteer for the church. 

It just doesn't make sense to upend the world for the tiny percent of women who are cranky malcontents.

Also, wow, how can anyone claim that women are oppressed?  Jeez!  Who wouldn't want that life!  Someone else doing all the work while you got to stay home like a pampered kitten, weeding the garden and playing with babies!

(Note that in other constructions of this argument, of course, this job is described as the hardest job in the world.)

So that's one problem.

Another, I think, is that women don't have a voice.

Stay with me here, now.

In Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, she has a passage near the end of Chapter One where she compares the two dinners she is served at each university she visits during the course of one day, the men's university and the women's. The meal at the men's university is wonderful, multi-course, with various lovely wines, excellent soup, a couple sorts of meat, and an amazing pudding, fluffy and piquant.  The women's meal is gravy soup, water, prunes for dessert. She also considers the differences between their physical plant, their libraries, their dress, their funding.

What is the deal, she wonders eventually.  Why are the men so rich, and the women so poor?  Well, obviously because for generations, men have been endowing the men's university, pouring tons of money into it; and continue to do so.  Whereas, although women have been funding the women's university for about a hundred years, they have comparatively little money, and can fund it only scantily.

But that only takes the question a bit further back.  Why do women have so little money?

Woolf says:

What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary’s mother... if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease to-night and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography. If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or. going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry. 


Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband’s property — a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of according to my husband’s wisdom — perhaps to found a scholarship or to endow a fellowship in Balliol or Kings.

This is a continuing problem.  Women produce half the world's food, work 3/4 of the world's working hours, and yet earn less than 10% of the world's income, and own almost nothing. In the developed world, these percentages are somewhat better, but there is still a substantial gap, and that gap leads to an effective silencing of women.

People of Color used to be silenced as well.

As got argued over on Unfogged, an enormous factor in the Civil Rights Movement winning how they did and when they did was the arrival of the technology of television and photography.  TV and photography gave the leaders of the Movement a voice in a way they had never really had before.  Writing that the police attacked black marchers with dogs, or that they knocked black children down with fire hoses, is one thing; seeing a white policeman roll a little black girl down the road with a powerful jet from a fire hose, or another sic his dog on a peaceful black man marching down the street, is quite another.

And -- as we all know -- hearing Martin Luther King, Jr, speak was quite a different thing from reading what he wrote. Not to mention hearing him in the context of all those marchers who had come to testify.

Women have not (not really) been able to speak, not in that way.  

Think of when Wendy Davis took her crowds to Texas.

We got some positive press, particularly when the grandmothers were dragged out by the police, and over the ridiculous confiscation of tampons and menstrual pads.  

But often the press seems unsure: is this oppression.  Are these women, in fact, uppity bitches? I mean, you know, Dan, it's a tough call!  What do they really have to whine about? Just because the State thinks it knows better than they do what should be done with their bodies? Jeez!

And women don't own any platform from which to argue back. We don't have a Martin Luther King, Jr.  We don't have a media -- though we have occasional liberal voices, such as Rachel Maddow and John Stewart -- and we don't have resources to get our message out.  (Contrast, for instance, the astro-turfing of -- say -- Erik Erikson's talking points, or Ann Coulter's books, which end up being endlessly puffed all over the Right Wing media.)

Finally, I think, with racism, the enemy was not (for lots of Americans, anyway) us.

It was those other Americans, down in Mississippi, Alabama, New Orleans.  Those ignorant crackers in Arkansas who shut their school rather than let their kids sit next to black children.

Whereas with feminism -- well.  All of us either are women or have one in the family.  

Those of us who are women -- many of us were not raised as the equal of our brothers. 

Many of us saw our mothers treated as subordinate to our fathers.  

Many saw our brothers get privileges we did not get; many were given more work for less reward and less respect; many got less freedom at a later age.  

Many were told that we were wrong (somehow) because of the body we were born in. 

We were told -- by our parents, by our brothers, by our teachers, by the books we read and the world we lived in -- that we were not as capable or important or as interesting as our brothers, and that we would never, ever come to as much as they would.

When we encountered feminism, many of us were ready for it. We seized upon it. 

Others weren't as pleased.

And this includes many men -- some of them aren't happy at the ideas feminism brings to the world either; and why would they be? 

Why would my racist cousins be happy at the civil rights movement, which means they have to lose all the special privileges they, as white guys in the South, get?  An automatic better shot at any job that comes along, automatic respect from 90% of the population, automatic certainty that they are the genetic and moral superior to most of the people around them...

Well, shit, obviously they should want to quit this filthy worldview.  Let's be clear.  This is an immoral and awful way to live your life.  And it's just as awful whether you're thinking this way about people of color or women.  These men have wives and daughters and sisters and mothers.  If they love the women in their lives, they should be feminists.  They should want these women in their lives to have an equal shot at the best life possible.  And any decent man is, in my experience, does want that. Furthermore, in my opinion, any woman who doesn't support feminism either doesn't understand what it is, or is equally immoral.

On the other hand: What, exactly, is wrong with that guy and his wife having a relationship in which one is dependent on the other, if that relationship is one they (both) want to have?


I'm not speaking of stay-at-home parents here.  Dr. Skull stayed at home with our kid when she was little. It's often a practical solution to our (kind of) broken social structure.

(An unbroken social structure would provide some way for both parents to work and for children to be cared for, because frankly that's how it's supposed to be.  But you need intact extended families -- plenty of aunts and grandmas, granddas, uncles, cousins, and buddies -- for this to work; and instead in America what we tend to have are isolated nuclear families locked in single housing units far from their support system, with one to three young children each, which is just untenable, but that's another blog rant.) 

No, what's immoral is one parent being subordinated to the other parent.

Subordinated: put into the power of.  This can be done in a number of ways.  One parent can have all the money, for instance.  

Or he (it's almost always he, though it's just as bad if it's she) can have all the power.  Sometimes he gets that power from religion -- God says I'm in charge, so you have to obey; sometimes he gets it from being physically large: do what I say or I'll beat you up/kill you; sometimes he gets it from psychological terrorism: do what I say or I'll take the kids; kill myself; leave.

No matter how it's played out, using force to keep another person under our power is evil.

I'm going to say that even if they agree to it, it's evil.

(Though people are free to disagree with me on that one.)

I say this last, because I know how people can be taught to believe destructive things -- that he hits you because he loves you, for instance; that black people really are inferior, for instance -- and so I think that if you take advantage of an oppressive social system, just because it benefits you, that's, well, it's kind of evil.

My point -- and I do have one -- is that being anti-feminist, which is to say, being against equal rights for women, is not yet seen as a deal-breaker, as a third-rail moment, because we, as a society, are in fact not quite convinced that women are equal creatures.

This is still a culture, and a world, in which people can say that women just don't want to treated like equal citizens; that women just really aren't as smart as men; that they don't actually deserve equal treatment under the law; and have no problem recovering from these statements.  No problem getting elected, no problem keeping their jobs, no problem being accepted socially.

The reasons for this being true are multiple, I think; the ones I cover here are probably only a few of them.  But women's powerlessness as a group lie at the root of them all.

Until we have power -- via the media, via money, via the government, via corporations or any other route -- it's unlikely that we'll have any real effect on any of this.

Update: Yeah, shit.  See also this, over at Shakesville. Depressing.


J. Otto Pohl said...

I have noticed that some African women working on gender issues reject the term feminist as well in favor of the term womanist. The Euro-American ideological baggage of feminism is in many ways problematic for places like Africa. So yes there are people who reject feminism, but not women's rights.

Anonymous said...

J. Otto Pohl, I understand your point, but I wouldn't define those positions as anti-feminist. I have encountered people who have strategically identified as not feminist, most prominently s.e. smith, but that does not make them anti-feminist. smith still spends a great deal of time critiquing systemic misogyny and writes a number of things that feminists agree with. Perhaps the best way to look at the author's argument is to substitute "misogynist" for "anti-feminist." The main point remains: being a misogynist, believing women are inferior, belong in the home, should be under the control of a man is not seen as a career killer in politics. Believing that women don't deserve the same treatment doesn't make one so reprehensible that no one will have anything to do with them.

lfconrad said...

What confounds me perhaps the most are the women who DO have at least the illusion of power, via money or politics, for example, who choose not to support equal rights for women. I wonder if they truly believe what they espouse, or are they merely playing the role they know they must to be "successful" in a misogynistic society? Is it that "some women are more equal than others"? If all women are treated equally, maybe they will find themselves no longer at the top of the heap? They are willing to sacrifice the welfare of other women in order to be accepted by the "good ol' boys"? How do they sleep at night?

lfconrad said...
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delagar said...

lfconfrad, internalized oppression is a powerful force.

Take Ann Coulter, for instance. She's famous for saying she doesn't think women are competent to run their own lives, or to have the vote, and so on. Taken at her word, obviously she thinks she should be some man's ward -- that she shouldn't be allowed to own property, or manage money, or publish books without some man's okay.

Well, she clearly doesn't actually believe any such thing. What she has done is to internalize the hatred of what she is (a woman) so deeply that she can't bear to place herself in that category (woman).

She has aligned herself with the category man, at least politically and socially. (I doubt she thinks of herself as a man in any sexual or gender-specific way.)

She -- and those like her, in the same unhappy condition -- imagine that the men they align themselves with will accept them in the category men, and give them the same rewards men get, because they are not like those others, over there in that disgusting and powerless category women.

That's their game. They're playing it for keeps. As they start to lose -- as Ann Coulter is now starting to lose -- they play it more and more viciously, because if they're not category man, where does that leave them?

lfconrad said...

You express so much more eloquently (of course) what I was trying to get at with my somewhat lame Animal Farm allusion. Those women cannot possibly see themselves in the same light as the women they are helping to oppress.

The "other" is terrifying, yes?

I know something about internalized oppression in the form of inner homophobia. Although I did my stint "passing" as a heterosexual and praying to be "cured," I have never felt the self loathing that others in the LGBTQ community have, thank goodness.

So do women like Ann Coulter experience that type of self-loathing?